Arts Review: Gaia Nardie-Warner’s “Limelight”

Gaia Nardie-Warner’s “Limelight” at Public Space One

I stopped by Public Space One the day after the opening of Gaia Nardie-Warner’s “Limelight,” and the gallery space had its fluorescent lights on. These had been turned off during the opening, so that track lighting provided the paintings’ only illumination. I therefore experienced them under both flattering and unflattering lights, and was struck by the degree to which the harsh light transformed the paintings, reducing surfaces that had seemed so luminous and effortless under the track lights to dusty, humdrum affairs beneath the fluorescent ones.

Works in Progress an Artists View:

The main idea behind art fairs is to make accessible a wide variety of work in a concentrated space, so that fairgoers can see a lot of art in a relatively short time. Art fairs in major cities around the globe (New York, Miami, Basel—Chicago closer to home) creates mini-cities where a slice of the art world congregates to take in a kind of survey of art trends of the moment. Smaller art fairs (like the Iowa Arts Festival) take up this model on a smaller scale.

But Works in Progress, which took place in Iowa City Oct. 18-21, is different: Instead of a program that displays a map of booths, the festival is broken into time blocks, where artists perform, propose projects, collaborate and, in general, discuss what they are thinking about. It is structured more like an academic conference than a summer festival. Instead of technical wizardry, secret formulas and closed, finished work, Works in Progress emphasises feedback, testing new ideas and pushing one’s own work forward. Importantly, also, it showcases work that falls outside of the easily saleable: performance, temporary installations or conceptual projects that do not hang easily above the sofa.

WiP is designed, primarily, to offer insight into the nature of artistic work, for fairgoers to think alongside artists about their projects and to make contributions to their work. At WiP, the artist gets ideas (instead of money) from the participants. My own presentation, which was more like a booth (I had a table at the Friday night event) involved inviting the audience to help me make some paintings.

I have, in my work, arrived at a set of rules and conditions that govern the way that I am making the current batch of paintings that I am working on. I wanted to see what other people would do with the restrictions—how they would interpret them and what kinds of decisions they would make. I wanted to escape the confines of my habitual marks and imagine different ways of approaching the image. A particularly fruitful contribution came from a poet, who approached the text that is part of these paintings in a wholly unexpected way. It is this kind of cross-pollination that makes the festival rewarding for an artist.

The goal of WiP is for the work to begin a conversation. On my end, I have much to think about, and am grateful for the feedback.


This encounter reinforced for me the razor-sharp edge the paintings are walking in presenting themselves as gestural abstractions—an edge that demands acknowledging the very real possibility of failure and fraudulence. I could not help but think, when seeing the work a second time, of dressing rooms in high-end stores, where theatrical lighting and specially curved mirrors create a dreamy stage-set in which the shopper appears ever- so-slightly more attractive than he does on the street. The paintings echo this precarious state: they require the right kind of light (and the right kind of looking) to hold together—and when I see them in this way, I believe they have the answers to all of my problems. When distracted, or otherwise unable to view them in the right way, I cannot see anything at all. One might say that this is painting on the edge of meaning; one could also say that it is a matter of cobbling together the raw materials for a meaningful experience that is activated, when the conditions are right, by the right viewer— but that, if pressed in an interrogation, the art- ist would retain plausible deniability that she had meant anything at all.

There is a distinction worth dwelling on here: it is the case that with some art, a viewer can see it without the proper attention and visual sensitivity and still recognize it as meaningful. The Egyptian wall paintings might have been this way for western viewers before the discovery of the Rosetta stone: these marks clearly meant something: it was simply unclear what that ‘something’ was.  The long list of art that has caused scandals in the 20th century has a different relationship to meaning: if one cannot immediately see it, it becomes puzzling that there could be anything there at all. The danger inherent in this kind of work is, of course, that there is in fact nothing there—the Emperor’s clothes aren’t clothes after all.

I believe there is something in Nardie- Warner’s work, and that to better identify what that is, it will prove helpful to discuss the change the paintings underwent with the shifting lighting conditions. It was wholly re- lated to their material character: in the right light, the layers of paint capture and hold light. The hues are in perfect relation to each other and the surfaces are jewel-like because of that captured light. The paintings feel effortless. The interaction between the effortlessness of the marks and the luminosity of the color is their source of tension.

In fluorescent light, all of works’ luminosity is shut down, and the effortlessness reads as sloppiness. The lines and marks pregnant with meaning degrade into mere smudges and smears.

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The fragility of this work is an essential part of its specific poetry, and the poetry is particularly related to the fragility of the gestural mark. If Abstract Expressionism made the gestural mark the supreme expression of human existence in an industrial world, it has been argued to have exhausted the possibilities of that mark. Artists who choose to engage with it now are embarking upon a fraught enterprise. The result is that painting that deploys that kind of mark must acknowledge the potential impotence of gesture itself.

Painting that falls under Raphael Rubenstein’s rubric of “provisional painting” acknowledges this fraughtness by threatening, always, to fall apart. There is more self-consciousness in this use of the intuitively drawn line than in Pollock’s or de Kooning’s. It seems to proclaim: “This might be nothing. But then again, it might be something.” These newer gestural paintings re-open an investigation into certain possibilities in abstract painting by inviting the viewer to explore the possibilities in the marks without too much commitment. This gives them the opportunity to breathe again precisely by working on the margins or fringe of what was once hallowed ground.

Nardie-Warner’s work situates itself on that fringe by referencing fashion and cultural ephemera (which it does by the presentation of a fashion show on opening night, through the elaborately painted space in which the work is presented, and explicitly in the statement), operating in a realm where personal expression still has some street value, and where the stakes are low enough that the work can escape the charge of taking itself too seriously. Within that narrowly circumscribed sphere, the luminous color, the inventive and whimsical structures, the vibrant transparencies burst out of that constricted space and breathe as legitimate descendants of fauvist landscapes and Kandinsky’s abstraction, legitimate as human monuments because of their lack of ambition, and the degree to which they overwhelmingly surpass the expectation that the frame sets.

The play of shimmering color against the easy mark gives the paintings a sense of having come from a source of pure poetry—neither angst nor error make any sense within this world. But the structure of meaning in this world is incredibly perilous, always threatening to crumble. It makes one want to cradle the paintings—to place them in a protected space where the world will not be able to harm them.

The purity of their making makes me think of a child, whose purity of invention must be protected from the more sinister forces in the world, but whose purity recalls us, their custodians, back to our own humanity. This is potent medicine, and dangerous. That it must be hidden in a dilapidated structure seems entirely prudent.

Brian Prugh is a graduate student studying painting at the University of Iowa. He also writes art criticism for the Iowa City Arts Review, found online at